Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shrine of the book.

Morgan and I are staying at the Jerusalem Inn, on 7 Horcanos, about a a block from Yaffo and Heleni Hamalka. Those of you familiar with Jerusalem's geography and topography will probably raise an eyebrow when I tell you that we decided, on Tuesday to walk to the Shrine of the book to see Dead Sea Scrolls and (drum roll please . . .) the Aleppo Codex! We started out early walked Yaffa to HaMelech George to Ramban. After about 3/4mi on Ramban we crossed a really big street and followed a street whose name I can't recall to the Israel Museum Complex. Once in, we looked for a while at the model of Late Second Temple Period Jerusalem. I turned on the Audio Guide and a British voice gushed lovingly in my ear about the sheep pools. I turned off the Audio Guide. Morgan took this picture of the model Temple:

There is an amazing amount of care and detail that went into the model, but it is unpeopled, empty; even architectural models place people in their landscapes to suggest a place in use. This model, however, suggests a place in disuse.

After ascending the stairs to a plaza we came across this lovely fountain:

The "fountain," of course, is the Shrine of the Book. It is designed to look like the lid of one of the pots that contain the Dead Sea Scrolls; appropriate since it itself contains them. The fountain is a very effective cooling system, keeping the interior in the 60's or so, even when the exterior is in the 100's. Jerusalem's dry climate is part of its effectiveness - evaporating water cools the dome.

Inside one steps down through a series of small displays concerning the material culture of the Qumran community, and then one enters the rotunda which has displayed the scrolls, or copies thereof depending on their condition. We saw part of the rule of the community, and the battle of the sons of the darkness and the sons of the light. A copy of the Isaiah Scroll was displayed at the center. One is struck first by the legibility of the texts - the letter forms, penned more than 2000 years ago, are not strikingly different than those we use today. The English alphabet has undergone more changes in about a quarter of that time. Most of the scrolls are in Hebrew, so to the reader of Hebrew they are comprehensible as well as legible. To read a scroll written that long ago is to stand in direct communication with its scribe across millenia.

Downstairs a special treat awaited us. The Aleppo Codex, edited, according to Maimonides, by no less than David Ben Asher himself is the crowning achievement of the Masoretic Tradition. It's not much to look at - penned in a plain hand with nikkud, cantillation marks, and Masoretic notes it is a text whose writer clearly valued function over form. This was the text that Maimonides used as his exemplar when he wrote his own Sefer Torah, and provided the basis for his Hilchot Sefer Torah which remains to this day an essential body of Halachah for the scribe writing a Sefer Torah for Synagogue use. The text remained in tact until 1948 when parts of it were lost in a pogrom.

Another item on display was called the "Small Codex." It is a small codex penned by an Ashkenazic scribe using the Aleppo Codex as its exemplar. It was opened to a spread containing the last page of Eichah and the first page of Esther. It was stunningly beautiful, rich with creative formatting of the text. In some ways I found this text more remarkable than the Aleppo Codex itself - it testified to what a scribe can do to wed form and function when presented with a reliable exemplar and a kavannah for hiddur mitzvah.

Other things we learned that day - the Art Garden is torture at midday. Israeli Feta and Watermelon are a fantastic pairing. And one side of Agron St. is closed to Pedestrian Traffic between the Conservative Center and HUC Jerusalem. The following morning we found a very nice apothecary who provided just the thing for our blisters. It was a transaction conducted entirely in Hebrew, though that entailed me showing her the blister because I have no idea what the generic name is for Moleskine, let alone how to say it in Hebrew.

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